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South America, Peru, The Fourth Pucahirca

The Fourth Pucahirca. As every serious student of the Andes knows, there are three Pucahircas. We, the members of the 1955 North American Andean Expedition, had read all the literature about them—two paragraphs. Except for a solo ascent by Erwin Schneider of South Pucahirca in 1936 the area was unexplored.

For five days we marched through sun and cloud over the Andes and when we turned the corner of the Jancapampa valley, there were our three magnificent six thousanders: South, Middle, and North Pucahirca. South Pucahirca looked especially beautiful and difficult, and our admiration for the legendary Austrian who had preceded us increased. We established Base Camp and after considerable effort made the first ascent of the most northerly peak, obviously North Pucahirca. Then, just before we left, Harold Walton and I grabbed a few leftover cans and crossed the icefall to the base of the most southerly of the three peaks to repeat Schneider’s ascent of South Pucahirca. Through the mist we could not find one ridge but saw two buttresses instead, neither of which appeared suitable for solo climbing. After a few hours’ climbing on the right one, we came up against a 100-foot nearly vertical snow wall. Perhaps Erwin had used the other buttress. Out of food, we ran for Base Camp.

There was one interesting result of our side trip. When the mist had cleared for a moment, Harold and I had seen a huge mountain, well over six thousand meters, behind South Pucahirca. It did not look extremely difficult and it was not shown on the map. What was it? Afterwards, I would often talk about my unknown, unmapped, unclimbed six thousander. In 1958 Andy Kauffman and I discussed the mysterious mountain with Raymond Leiniger in Paris, but he did not know what it was either. The Swiss and Italians began assaulting Middle Pucahirca. Their accounts were puzzling, for it seemed as if they were trying our South Pucahirca.

By 1961 Middle Pucahirca remained one of the last major unclimbed peaks in the Cordillera Blanca. Both the Italians and the Japanese were after it. When Mr. Ichiro Yoshizawa, the leader of the Japanese, came through the United States, I showed him some photographs of the Pucahircas, pointed out the mountain we had climbed and suggested some possible routes on Middle Pucahirca. He borrowed a couple of pictures and went happily on his way. Several months later I received an ecstatic letter from Mr. Yoshizawa relating how the Italians had made the first ascent of Middle Pucahirca and how his Japanese party had made the first ascent of North Pucahirca. They were most grateful for our assistance. I was pleased, baffled, and slightly irritated.

When Mr. Yoshizawa returned with his pictures I finally learned the embarrassing truth. The accounts made sense. Erwin Schneider became human. My unknown, unmapped, unclimbed mountain was South Pucahirca ! Our South Pucahirca was Middle Pucahirca and our Middle Pucahirca was North Pucahirca. It seems that from the Jancapampa valley South Pucahirca is hidden behind Middle. Therefore, there were two unclimbed peaks in the Pucahircas and not just one. The previous European parties did not attempt North Pucahirca because they assumed we had climbed it in 1955. Mr. Yoshizawa knew better because of my photographs. Thus, through our generosity and foresight we made available an extra unclimbed mountain and prevented any possible international rivalry in the Cordillera Blanca. And just what was the six thousander we climbed in 1955. A fourth Pucahirca? But as every serious student of the Andes knows …

Nicholas B. Clinch